Picture Perfect: Don MacMonagle - 'Páidí Ó Sé's lifetime achievement in sport cuddled together in a cookie box'

'In a USA box under my mother's bed' was where the late Páidí Ó Sé kept his eight All-Ireland medals at his home in Ventry. Páidí is pictured with his eight All-Ireland Senior Football Championship medals which he won in 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1984, 1985 (capt), and 1986 while wearing the No 5 jersey. Páidí was the last Kerry captain that beat Dublin in an All-Ireland final in 1985. Picture by Don MacMonagle
"In a USA box under my mother's bed" was where the late Páidí Ó Sé kept his eight All-Ireland medals at his home in Ventry. Páidí is pictured with his eight All-Ireland Senior Football Championship medals which he won in 1975, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1984, 1985 (capt), and 1986 while wearing the No 5 jersey. Páidí was the last Kerry captain that beat Dublin in an All-Ireland final in 1985. Picture by Don MacMonagle

My favourite photograph

I photographed Páidí Ó Sé as a player, a trainer, with his family, in business with sports stars and celebrities — and even his funeral, which of course was a very sad occasion.

I have taken hundreds of pictures of Páidí playing football, posed on mountain tops, with movie stars, with many politicians.

One photo showed Páidí putting sugar in Brian Cowan’s coffee and it appeared on the front page of the Irish Examiner with the caption ‘ Sugar for Tea-shock’.

Páidí was one of the most photographed GAA sportsmen of all time in Ireland. I think that was mainly because of his passion for sport, his hard man from the wild west of Kerry image and his eloquent use of language.

His appreciation of photography and the power of an image would endear him to many photographers who could rightly claim to be his friend. Páidí reciprocated by posing for some fantastic images and rarely denied a photographer a portrait shot.

Don MacMonagle
Don MacMonagle

But one photo of Páidí stands out above the myriad of images in our archives and that’s this one with his eight All-Ireland medals.

Technically it’s a simple photo. It was taken with a digital camera using a 85mm lens and a two flash setup. However the backstory is what makes the image special.

I was doing a portrait style photo to illustrate an article where Páidí was predicting Dublin would beat Kerry in the 2011 All-Ireland final.

Going against the grain and outlining his reasoning was his strength.

He could see weakness in the Kerry team despite three nephews lining out and to tip Dublin was a bold prediction.

Instead of the usual picture of Páidí at the pub door or on the beach I suggested maybe a photo polishing his trophies might work. Then I thought of the All-Ireland medals and asked where were they?

His answer came as something of a surprise: ‘In a ‘USA’ box under my mother’s bed’ he laughed. He went upstairs in his mother’s house and duly produced this rusty USA biscuit tin cluttered with medals, a lifetime achievement in sport cuddled together in a cookie box.

I got a piece of cardboard and black cloth and with some panel pins loosely attached the 8 All-Ireland medals to display them. As the image came into focus with Páidí’s profound stare atop the medals I had to take a deep breath knowing that this was an iconic image and a statement of a truly great successful sportsman. 

The candid nature of the medal hanging, the USA box and the poise, shot in his living room in Ventry, will always be my favourite photo of him. 

Páidí had many many photographer friends from all over Ireland and he would oblige for most of them. He knew the power of the image. We built up a relationship over many years and he often confided in me like the time when he went to ground after resigning as Kerry manager after the infamous ‘animals’ remark. 

I drove back west and located him in a farmhouse up the side of the hill and he agreed to pose for a photo with his son Padraig playing football on the beach.

I have had much craic taking lighthearted photos of him over the years, like the time he dressed as a chef at The Devil’s Elbow, set dancing in the sea, reflecting under a dolmen, chasing Fungie and lobsters, opening the pub, his wedding day, and much more. But of all of them, this is the one. 

The second I looked through the lens it was beyond anything that I could have hoped or wished for. It was one of those moments where I went ‘Oh my God, this is the picture.” And that was the gift that Páidí had.” 

 Interview: Colm O’Connor

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